Pat Powell has left his mark in more ways than one on the Suzuki T200 Invader he’s owned for half a century.
As well as the café racer conversion, there’s the dent in the top of the aluminium petrol tank, the legacy of a painful spill en route to Torquay in the early 1970s.
It’s a permanent reminder of Pat’s youthful adventures, when up to 350 bikers from Kent would descend on the Devon seaside town for two weeks, camping in a farmer’s field.
The group was loosely attached to the Prince of Wales pub in Strood, and it was there that Pat found the inspiration to modify the 1968 Invader into the café style.
“There would be hundreds of bikes down there all over the weekend, and I used to hang out there with my mates,” he says.
“I’d look at things that people were building and putting together, café racers, sidecar units done in fibreglass like you’d have on the track – people were riding them around the town – and it was just a progression from that really.”
Pat, an apprentice mechanic with British Road Services (BRS) at the time, fitted clip-on drop handlebars, a Dunstall fairing and seat, the aluminium tank, and rearset foot pegs.
It transformed the riding experience.
“You feel more part of it, because you’re lower down,” he says. “The steering is more flowing, I find, than on a standard upright.”
Nearly 50 years later, the bike remains unchanged, barring its colour, and Pat, now 66 and retired, has it back on the road after it spent 37 years stored in his late mother’s shed, gradually turning green.
Pat cut his biking teeth on a Honda C90 at 16, a commuter bike to get him to and from his apprenticeship, before looking for something more powerful.
“A friend of mine had this two-year-old T200 and he wanted to get something bigger,” he remembers. “I think I paid about £200 for it.”
The bike was one of a clutch of fabled two-stroke twins manufactured by Suzuki, following on from the legendary, slightly larger T20.
Pat’s five-year apprenticeship was transferred to Rugby Portland Cement after three years, BRS having folded, and he would ride the Suzuki to work and back, as well as out to the Prince of Wales at the weekend, listening to rock and roll group Cadillac on Friday and Saturday nights.
Each year, at the end of June and beginning of July, the pub’s bikers would head to Torquay.
“We’d leave on a Friday night, sometimes we had 300 to 350 bikes, and we would travel overnight down the old A roads – there were no motorways in those days,” says Pat.
“There was a biker-friendly farmer down there. We’d camp in his field and he’d supply us with milk from his cows.
“The Police didn’t like it a lot but they couldn’t do anything about it as we had somewhere to stay. We used to spend two weeks down there riding around different places every day.”
Came a cropper
Apart, that was, from the time when Pat came a cropper on the way down to Devon, just past Redhill in Surrey.
“I made a mistake, and was trying to overtake somebody, going too fast, and didn’t realise there was a 90 degree bend with a humpbacked bridge on it,” he says.
“I didn’t make it round the bend, hit the top of the bridge, went along the bridge wall, down the other side and did my shoulder in.
“One of the other riders put me in their sidecar and took me the rest of the way down to Torquay. Another chap straightened the bike up a bit and rode it down there.
“He was only staying for a week, so he said he would bring the bike back for me while I stayed down there. He lived just down the road from my mum and dad, and he put it in his back garden. Unbeknown to me, one of my brothers saw it in his back garden and told my dad.
“He wanted to know why he had got my bike! In the meantime, I had to go to the hospital because my shoulder had got so bad.
“I found out I had broken my collar bone, but I stayed for the full two weeks and came back in the sidecar with my arm in a sling.”
Once home, and having explained the situation to his father, Pat straightened the Suzuki out, bought a few new bits and pieces for it, and carried on.
At work, Rugby Portland Cement was working on the second Dartford Tunnel, and wanted Pat to work nights for two years…
“Not at the age of 22!” he laughs, leaving for a stint at Sparshatts Mercedes at Sittingbourne working on heavy commercial lorries, while also working on Yamaha racing kart engines for friends.
“It came to the point that I needed a Monday to Thursday job, so I could get away for weekends to go all over the place kart racing,” he says.
“The bloke who owned a 250cc single Yamaha kart was a multi-millionaire, and he said don’t worry about the money, I’ll sort that out for you.
“At the same time, the local bike shop said they were looking for a mechanic, and I could do four days a week, which turned out to be quite handy.”
Pat spent five years at Baldwin International, one of Barry Sheene’s sponsors, followed by another five years at Elliotts, a Yamaha dealer in Gillingham, and it was his work in motorbike dealerships that saw the T200 consigned to his mum’s shed.
“Once I started working for the motorcycle dealers, I would have these brand new demonstrator bikes to go to work and back on,” he says.
“I was still living at my mum’s house at the time, and I put the Suzuki in the back garden shed. I had all good intentions of getting it out later on, but then I got married, had children, and it just sat there really, through the years.”
Pat married Chris in 1977, with daughters Susan and Sarah coming along in 1980 and 1985 respectively.
“It came to the stage where you’re running kids around, so the bike was not practical,” he says.
“It was never forgotten, but it just sat there, covered by blankets.”
Despite its lack of use, Pat never considered selling the Suzuki.
“I don’t sell anything I’ve got,” he smiles. “I hang on to things. If I buy a car, I’ll keep it until it’s ready to go to the scrapyard.
“You’re only spending money replacing something that does the same thing. If it’s had its day then fine, but otherwise why change something for something else?
“I’ve got mates who seem to have another new bike each week! I prefer to look after what I’ve got.”
With extra mouths to feed, Pat left the motorcycle industry and got a job, and a pay rise, as a night fitter at Kings Ferry Coaches, initially working from 6pm to midnight.
“I doubled my money, ended up running the workshop at night, and stayed there for 30 years, ” he says, retiring at the age of 62 when the firm was taken over by National Express.
“They wanted everyone, including me, to go to college in Leicester to check whether you can put a wheel on, do some tappets and change some brake pads.
“I’d been doing that for 30 years, and told them I found it quite insulting. I was thinking about retiring in a year anyway, so I gave my notice and left at Christmas.”
Out of hiding
At around the same time, Pat’s mother passed away, and the Suzuki had to come out of hiding in the shed before her house could be sold.
“The bike was not very good,” he says. “All the ally had gone green, and the chrome had gone a bit. Having just retired, I needed something to do to wind myself down and I like bringing things back.
“I’ve always been someone who repairs things, whatever it is – you’ve got nothing to lose. I convert old Betamax and VHS tapes, and I repair old games machines and PCs.”
Pat’s collection includes a Sega Mega Drive, Atari ST, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 600, plus PlayStations 1, 2 and 3.
Over his years in the motorcycle trade, Pat had gathered a sizeable collection of spare parts at knock-down prices, including points, brake shoes, cables, and gasket sets.
“A lot of the motor factors had sales of things not being used much, so I bought parts for pennies,” he says. “I’d buy four throttle cables for a pound, and I’ve still got quite a stock of gasket sets and things like that.”
Pat cleaned up the bike as best he could, repainting the seat, rechroming where necessary and sent the crankshaft away to be renovated.
“I knew it would be totally wiped out, the seals would be completely knackered and dried out, so I had it completely rebuilt – all new bearings, new seals and new conrods – so we start off giving it a chance,” he says.
“The bores were OK, I just cleaned them, the pistons and rings were fine, then I put it all back together and away she went.”
Back on the road
The whole project took about a year, and the old bike was back on the road in 2018. It now shares a garage with a Yamaha XJR1300 that Pat has owned for 17 years.
“It was lovely to be back on it – in a way, it takes me back in time,” he says. “It did feel strange though, because I’m used to the big 1300. There’s no weight to it. And you open the throttle and think ‘ah right, OK then’ because you’re used to the power.”
Unfortunately, a herniated disc is keeping Pat off the road while he waits for an operation, but he’s planning to take the Suzuki out on club runs once he’s back to full fitness.
Even when his riding days one day come to an end, he will be loath to part with a bike that means so much to him.
“I’ll never sell it,” he says. “It’s like a lot of things I own. They’re mine, my playthings, whether or not they get used. A lot of people put prices on things, but I don’t care what it’s worth. I don’t put a monetary value on things.
“The big one I might sell if I can’t ride it. It would be a little criminal to leave it there to rot. But the Suzuki I would keep – it’s something to polish and tinker and play around with.”
Chris, Pat’s wife of 43 years, joins us in the garden and jokes: “I would go before that bike does!”
Between them, they ponder any possible succession plans for the bike.
“We’ve got five grandsons, and one of them has a little pit bike, but he probably wouldn’t be into that,” says Pat. “Maybe one day one of them will want it.”
For now, he’s just looking forward to being able to bend his back, lay low over that dented petrol tank and once again be transported back to his carefree youth.
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